Exegesis of John 8:44 for Grace Cathedral

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Readings for Thursday in the Fifth Week of Lent

Genesis 17:1-8

Psalm 105:4-11

John 8:51-59

This homily was preached by Daniel London at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on April 6, 2017

The Gospel readings for this Fifth Week of Lent have included passages from the 8th chapter of John, which contains one of the most beloved stories in all the Gospels as well as one the most troubling. The former involves a woman caught in adultery and the latter involves Jesus and the Jews caught in a vitriolic debate. Our reading today includes the final jabs of this troubling dispute between Jesus and the Jews, which ends with the Jews attempting to stone Jesus. This argument is so troubling that the lectionary organizers thought it best to omit a significant portion of it; several verses which have been highly prone to misinterpretation and which have, in fact, been used to justify Christian violence against Jews. The verse most prone to pernicious readings is verse 8:44 in which Jesus says to the Jews, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” To this day, white supremacists and anti-Semitic communities point to this verse as justification for their “Christian” anti-Judaism, this verse in which Jesus seems to call the Jews to whom he is speaking “children of the devil.”[1]

In many ways, it probably was wise for the lectionary organizers to omit this verse and others like it from the Lenten readings since it is so fraught and so very difficult to interpret. However, as someone with Jewish background, I cannot help but grasp the nettle and grapple with these words of Jesus. Although unpacking and dismantling the apparent anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John cannot be accomplished in one brief homily, I would like to offer a reading that has been helpful for me.

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi arguing with other Jewish rabbis about how to interpret the Torah as rabbis are wont to do. This was an intra-Jewish debate, a debate within the Jewish community. Throughout John, Jesus seems to highlight the portions of the Torah that defend and advocate for society’s victims while his interlocutors tend to focus on the parts of the Torah that condemn, punish, accuse and expel. In general, Jesus plays the role of the Advocate while his interlocutors play the role of the Accuser. In Hebrew, the word for Accuser is “Ha Satan” (Satan) which is translated into the Greek as diabolos and into English as devil. Later on in John, Jesus calls the Spirit which he will leave for his disciples the “Paraclete,” which is Greek for the Advocate. A significant part of Jesus’s ministry involved healing, protecting and defending victims from the social mechanism known as scapegoating which the Bible personifies as Ha Satan, the Accuser. We are all very susceptible to this social mechanism of blaming and scapegoating innocent victims; and many fascists have risen to power on the backs of various scapegoats and remain in power by consistently deflecting blame onto others. The Bible exposes the reality and violence of this social mechanism of scapegoating and Jesus stands fully within the Jewish prophetic tradition when he exposes others who are caught up in this behavior.

One of my favorite theologian James Alison points out how “Jesus uses the word ‘devil’ about his interlocutors’ paternity and his interlocutors use ‘demon’ to get back at Jesus…the word diabolos in John always refers to the founding principle of fratricidal order [scapegoating], and is a revelation of a principle that is to be overcome, not an accusation of ‘bad people.’ The word ‘demon’ – daimonion – is the accusatory word from within the fratricidally structured cultural order, the way one indicates someone as not ‘one of us.’ Jesus’ word diabolos reveals the murderous structure of [the scapegoating mechanism] the interlocutors’ word daimonion is a function of that [scapegoating mechanism].”[2] In other words, when Jesus says to the Jews that their father is the devil, he is not trying to insult them or demonize them; he is trying to show them that they are caught up in the behavior of the Accuser, the Satan. They behave as the Satan by accusing Jesus of having a demon and then by seeking to stone him to death just as they hoped to do to the woman supposedly caught in adultery. We all know the saying, When we point the finger at someone, we are always pointing three fingers back at ourselves. Jesus is saying that whenever we point a finger at someone else to accuse and victimize and demonize there are always three fingers pointing back at us, indicating our complicity in the work of the Satan.

The tragic irony is that the very passage that calls us to stop demonizing others has been used to do just that. Throughout history, Christians have too often played the role of the Satan by using this passage and others like it to accuse, demonize and victimize Jews and other vulnerable peoples and communities. When we do this, we fall into the very trap from which Jesus came to save us.

The Spirit which Jesus gave us is the Spirit of the Advocate, the Paraclete, the same Holy Spirit who has been speaking up for outcasts and victims ever since Abraham interceded for others and welcomed strangers into his home. The Holy Spirit has been speaking up for outcasts and victims even before Abraham and it is that Spirit that Jesus embodies and invokes when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” And it is that Spirit that Jesus pours out on his disciples and on all of us at our baptism, inviting us to bury our addictions to accusation and blame and to defend and advocate for those of us who are vulnerable and victimized, including those parts of ourselves that are vulnerable and victimized; for by doing so we are continuing the work of Christ and abiding with the Spirit who rejoiced with God at creation and who lives and reigns with God both now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] The website of the anti-Semitic White Nationalist Community called Stormfront.org cites John 8:44 in their list of “What World Famous Men Said about the Jews” https://www.stormfront.org/jewish/antisemite.html, accessed April, 6, 2017.

[2] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (Crossroads, 2001), 68.

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